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20 February 2016

Labour should draw strength from its unity on Europe

The Tories' divisions are profound, ideological and irreconcilable.

By Emma Reynolds

Many column inches will be dedicated to the splits in the Conservative Party this weekend. The spectre of Europe has haunted every Tory leader since John Major. Conservative eurosceptics live and breathe their opposition to the European Union. Divisions in their party are profound, ideological and irreconcilable.

In contrast, Labour stands united. The vast majority of our MPs and party members are committed to British membership of the European Union. Over 90 per cent of Labour MPs have signed up to the Labour In For Britain parliamentary group, including Jeremy Corbyn and the entire shadow cabinet. Our party conference last September unanimously agreed a motion, proposed by the GMB, committing us to campaigning to stay in the EU. Our campaign leader, Alan Johnson, has already hit the ground running, making the case for our membership.

The next few days will inevitably focus on the details of David Cameron’s deal . The Labour movement, including trade unions, should be proud that he was forced to abandon proposals to water down European laws on workers’ rights and social protection. We should also be proud that it was a Labour government that joined the European Social Chapter in the first place.

Labour must resist the temptation of expending vital political capital and energy on picking apart the renegotiation. This would surely be doing the work of the eurosceptics for them. Obviously, we would rather be in power, negotiating progressive reforms based on our values. When we return to power, we can pursue a Labour reform agenda. After all, reform is an ongoing process rather than a one-off event.

Although the deal will start the firing gun for the campaign, Labour shouldn’t get too bogged down in its intricacies. Instead, we should focus on the bigger arguments about jobs, investment , security and our influence  in the world. Our distinctive Labour campaign should also stress that working people are better off and better protected inside the EU. As TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady underlined this week, European laws have delivered rights and protections  for working people such as paid annual leave, rights for agency workers and paid maternity leave.

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The security arguments should also prove powerful with Labour voters. Tracking down cross-border criminal networks involves sharing intelligence with our European neighbours. Europol Director, Rob Wainwright, recently said that leaving the EU would “make Britain’s job harder to fight crime and terrorism.

Labour should highlight consumer benefits, such as cheap flights , lower roaming charges and stronger rights for air passengers. However, we should go beyond the cool-headed and transactional case for membership and make a patriotic case. By working with our European partners, Britain is stronger and has greater influence in the world. We have a proud history as a trading nation and we have always sought to punch above our weight.

We have a responsibility to have an honest and frank discussion with Labour voters about Europe. Immigration will often be part of that conversation. There is widespread recognition that European migrants come to our shores to work, rather than to claim benefits. But people do want to see a fair system, based on contribution. There are some voters who care more about immigration than anything else, but many Labour voters are also concerned about their local economy, jobs and investment.

Labour must prosecute all of these arguments in the weeks and months ahead. Unlike the Tories, we are united. Our party members and activists will be campaigning in their communities to convince people to vote to remain. This referendum will be won or lost, not only on the airwaves, but on the doorsteps of voters across the country.